Time for Everything in the World

Shakespeare wrote 12 comedies (14 if you count The Tempest and A Winter’s Tale) over the course of 16 years or so, an output that seems even more prodigious when you realize he was also turning out tragedies and histories at the same time.

There’s something about the chronological list of the plays (which I looked up because I’m spending a lot of time reading the comedies, and I keep forgetting which one I’m supposed to be on next) that I find enormously interesting.

It’s clear that Shakespeare’s first preoccupations were with the question of how we learn to love well — an obvious enough first preoccupation.  And then (and also at the same time) in the histories his concern is with what is, essentially, the next important thing that comes up in becoming an adult — mainly family, both public and private, which is what drives the histories.

It’s the tragedies, though, where things sort of blow apart.  I mean, obviously, the tragedies are linked by the fact that they all end in death rather than in marriage.  But they’re each so  beautifully and particularly about life itself, and its problems — with love, certainly, but also jealousy, fidelity, and language’s failure — and our own — to say what we mean.  In the comedies, and in literature that mirrors the comedies, like Austen’s novels, the curtain falls on marriage.  What’s wonderful about Shakespeare is that the curtain lifts again and again on what happens afterwards.  Sure, people end up dying, but then don’t we all?

Today, though, I’m still reading the comedies.  Maybe because it’s summer, there seems today to be time enough to get to those other preoccupations.

Here’s the list, in case you’re interested:

1589 Comedy of Errors

1590 Henry VI, Part II
Henry VI, Part III

1591 Henry VI, Part I

1592 Richard III

1593 Taming of the Shrew
Titus Andronicus

1594 Romeo and Juliet
Two Gentlemen of Verona
Love’s Labour’s Lost

1595 Richard II
Midsummer Night’s Dream

1596 King John
Merchant of Venice

1597 Henry IV, Part I
Henry IV, Part II

1598 Henry V
Much Ado about Nothing

1599 Twelfth Night
As You Like It
Julius Caesar

1600 Hamlet
Merry Wives of Windsor

1601 Troilus and Cressida

1602 All’s Well That Ends Well

1604 Othello
Measure for Measure

1605 King Lear

1606 Antony and Cleopatra

1607 Coriolanus
Timon of Athens

1608 Pericles

1609 Cymbeline

1610 Winter’s Tale

1611 Tempest

1612 Henry VIII


15 thoughts on “Time for Everything in the World

  1. For my Shakespeare: Tragedies and Romances class, I wrote my term paper on how Shakespeare’s attitude towards women in power – Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, the Queen from Pericles and Imogen – gets more positive as he continues writing. It’s interesting to think about how Shakespeare’s changing attitudes over time are reflected in his writing, and to daydream, a la Shakespeare in Love, what precipitated those changes.

    Hearing about you reading the comedies makes we want to take the other Shakespeare class so I can round out my Shakespeare exposure – I guess I’m going about it a little backwards, starting with the second half of his career, but I’m hoping it will give me a different, interesting perspective on his more youthful writings.

  2. I was going to read the comedies last year, but I’ve yet to do so. Several slim volumes sit atop bookcase. You’d think I’d have read at least one in the last several months. Hmmm…maybe I’ll start with a reread of one of my favs (As You Like It). Or I could go with one that I’ve never seen performed or read, like A Winter’s Tale.

  3. Cam, They ARE slim, aren’t they? A play doesn’t take long to read. I particularly like reading and then going to a production. In a few weeks, I’m going to Ashland where I’ll see All’s Well That Ends Well, a very late comedy, darker and more problematic than earlier ones. I can’t wait.

    Dear Ella, That sounds like a really fine paper! And I do think that moving backward could be very interesting. I hope you’re having a great summer. xoxox

  4. Hmm. Not only does he address the issues of family and love, but a common thread through many of both the Histories and Tragedies is the way a fatal flaw can ruin the whole house of cards. Usually the flaw is ambition, but pride comes in there too. MacBeth and Lady MacBeth were ambitious, too ambitious — and eventually it destroyed them both. Unfortunately for MacBeth, he was not as ambitious as his wife, but he was able to overcome his distaste for murder long enough to get sucked into the maelstrom created by her ambition. Eventually his real humanity and his shame about what happened to provide the fruits of her ambition destroyed him.

    Ah, Shakespeare. Even 400 years after he wrote them the plays are still full of Truth and depth. I guess that’s what made him a genius, eh?

  5. Twelve comedies in 16 years. I feel like a total slacker. I’m glad people like the comedies. I read most of them, respected the work but just couldn’t get into them.

  6. Charlotte — My feeling is that we should do what we can to get our creative work done, and make sure we don’t exploit or hurt anyone on the way there. This is a non-gender specific idea, and although there’s no way to know if S followed it, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt.

    Mari, He appears to have had a lot of help and also he borrowed from other sources. Plus plays are way, way shorter than novels. We aren’t slackers. (And don’t forget, we live a lot longer.)

    Ms. HMH — unbridled ambition = not so good sometimes, especially when you find yourself unable to say no.

  7. The closest I’ve come to reading Shakespeare this summer is “Fool” by Christopher Moore. It’s a retelling of King Lear, but from the Fool’s point of view. In Fool the Tragedy becomes a comedy, but without losing some of the darker themes from “Lear.” A good summer read, though I’ve liked other Moore books more.

  8. Ben, Why have I never heard of Christopher Moore? This book sounds really good — and Moore is quite prolific, Shakespearean even in his profligacy. Thanks for mentioning it.

  9. I hadn’t read a lick of Shakespeare for years until I bumped up against a hip-hop version of Mid-Summer Night’s Dream on the web.

    The first thing I heard was the scene where Puck is recognized by the fairy and begins to brag about his exploits. It was wonderful! Most interesting is that the experience sent me in two directions – toward hip-hop and poetry slams, and back to the printed texts.

    I’ll bet Shakespeare would have been really good at playing the dozens!

  10. Talking of time…

    Well, sir, learn to jest in good time: there’s a time for all things.
    I durst have denied that, before you were so choleric.
    By what rule, sir?
    Marry, sir, by a rule as plain as the plain bald pate of father Time himself.
    Let’s hear it.
    There’s no time for a man to recover his hair that grows bald by nature.

    I took my wife to see this play (The Comedy of Errors) at Stratford-upon-Avon. It was our first date and this was the only joke in the entire play that made her laugh.

  11. Joseph. How lovely that your first date was to a play! And, as jokes go, bald guy jokes seem to be ever-current.

    Ms. Shoreacres — hip hop midsummer night’s dream?!! wonderful.

  12. Do you find reading the plays or hearing them read aloud or performed is the most enjoyable way experience Shakespeare? I somehow managed to never take a class that required the reading of Shakespeare and have attended few Shakespearean plays, but recently heard a small portion read aloud and for the first time, I’m embarrassed to admit, really got it and am now prepared to finally explore Shakespeare. I’m thinking a well read audiobook might be the way to go. What do you recommend?

  13. Jana, Both — in fact, I just posted about the experience of seeing a production of a play in which the production is really not true to the play.

    I’ve never thought of listening to an audiobook — what a great idea! I find that reading a plot summary, and then reading the play from a good, but not overly annotated, edition, usually gets me engaged enough in the play to then enjoy a production of it.

  14. Coming to this late BL, but just wanted to say that “Shakespeare in the Park” is doing the rounds of the Bay Area. “A Comedy of Errors” was playing in Cupertino last week. It was here in Boston too, but I missed it :(.

    I *love* Shakespeare in the Park. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each and every play I’ve seen, including:
    A Comedy of Errors
    As You Like It
    A Midsummer Night’s Dream
    Much Ado About Nothing
    Romeo and Juliet

    Also saw an opulent and wonderful production of Hamlet in Minneapolis many years ago, and a really weird rendition of Julius Ceasar in which the characters and stage props were as if from a gangster film!

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